Etherborn Review: A Short and Mostly Sweet Puzzler

Etherborn is a short but mostly sweet puzzler that challenges players to defy gravity in order to traverse its M.C. Escher-esque world.

A glowing node sits atop a cube-shaped platform. Despite appearing seemingly in reach it doesn’t take long to realize it’s a bit more than a hop and a skip away. Approaching one the platform’s walls reveals a curve that allows it to be traversed on its side. You suddenly stand at a 90 degree angle, and the deceptively unreachable prize can now be claimed. Etherborn, a gravity-shifting puzzle game courtesy of Altered Matter, challenges you to explore its geometrical world in this unorthodox way to both delight and occasional frustration.

Etherborn’s environment design is reminiscent of the mind-bending perspective works of M.C. Escher. Seemingly impossible paths require you to explore them from all angles, whether it be perpendicular or upside down. This means many routes lie hidden in plain sight and can be easy to overlook. While hard edges are a no-go, curved corners anchor you to connecting surfaces. Reexamining simple shapes in this manner is an enjoyable mental exercise that leads to many “a ha!” moments. 

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The challenge ratchets up further with the introduction of devious obstacles. A poisonous gas kills anything it touches (though an instant respawn softens death's blow). Rising, piano key-like pillars cut off approach players, forcing the search for creative detours. Fun as these hurdles are, a larger variety of them would have been nice. Etherborn unfortunately relies on the same handful of tricks, albeit increasingly more complex, throughout its duration. 

Every level requires you to collect scattered nodes and return them to designated lock. These locks open additional paths that then lead to more nodes/slots until you work your way to the level’s exit. Since nodes must remain inserted to keep their respective routes open, expect to spend a lot of time swapping nodes back and forth between locks to unravel the proper sequence of pathfinding. Figuring out the correct order of operations is engrossing fun. One of the coolest examples of involves assembling missing chunks of an incomplete stage.  

Etherborn’s puzzle design generally makes sense but it’s not always clear what target(s) you should be aiming for next. Sometimes you’re just exploring aimlessly under the assumption that a road will lead to the next breakthrough which feels a little more like guesswork. This can make it easy to get lost in how to proceed, sometimes to a frustrating degree. It doesn't happen too often, though, and the calming, pretty visuals and peaceful soundtrack helps reduce that stress to a minimum.

One legitimate gripe can be lobbed at the restrictive camera. It only pans out limited degree and can’t be freely rotated. That’s fine for wide overhead shots but other times you’ll be begging to spin the view around to inspect an area, especially ones you’ve already explored. That’s because the only way to get a good look at a space is to physically occupy it. When you’re just trying to double-check a corner or jump, it’s annoying to have to revisit a spot again given how complicated the platforming can be to get there. 

Etherborn becomes a very tricky game but the brain-teasing only lasts a couple of hours. The final riddle, however, feels surprisingly tame and not the big final exam it should be, resulting in a relatively anti-climatic finish. It also doesn’t help that cryptic story, centering on the complexities of human life, winds up being more confusing than profound. If nothing else, a New Game + adds mileage to old stages by placing nodes in new, harder-to-reach areas.  Despite a few drawbacks, the positives of Etherborn’s design combined with its attractive presentation manage to just outweigh its shortcomings. Your noggin will ultimately be left wanting more of Etherborn’s mysteries, but that says a lot about its upsides–or downsides, depending on the angle you’re viewing them.

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Etherborn is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Screen Rant was provided with a digital Switch copy for the purposes of this review.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5 (Good)
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